In 2020, Liberty Food Mart turns 80 years old, still occupying the original building, a beloved Tondo landmark, on N. Zamora Street (formerly Sande) where locals make a pit stop to buy breads for their families or for their small businesses at the palengke or at their eateries. While the bestselling product remains the pan de sal, sold since the 1940s, Liberty is no longer a humble neighborhood panaderia, having embraced modern technology and introduced new bread products to its store. On its shelves today, you’ll find crusty sourdough bread with the gorgeous concentric patterns of French-style country loaves, alongside old-fashioned pan de suelo from the heyday of the pugon-run Filipino panaderia.
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It was in 1954 when the baker Ah Nam acquired the bakery from its original owner, the Santos family, who had established it earlier in 1940. Prior to that, Ah Nam arrived from China at the age of 30 as a migrant worker (today’s modern day OFW). He worked as a baker for his uncle in Blumentritt. He would bake and deliver the breads himself via horse and carriage. Eventually, Ah Nam put up his own bakery (then known simply as Liberty Bakery) while helping other relatives establish their own. Since then, Liberty Food Mart has gone big time, producing loaves from a separate commissary in Quezon City for distribution to supermarkets. But the headquarters remain in the original Tondo branch. Still sporting its original 1950’s-era logo and a humble storefront, Liberty continues to reflect the ethos of its Tondo birthplace.
Liberty Food Mart owner Henry Ah, son of Ah Nam, developed his line of campagne breads, inspired by European breads leavened with a sourdough starter. While they’re more prevalent in the ritzier bakeries of Makati and BGC, these artisan breads have become a welcome addition in Tondo, although tweaked with a softer crust to suit the local taste.
The bakery uses natural raisin sourdough starter to help make the dough rise. The beautiful circular patterns are imparted by placing the dough in traditional banneton proofing baskets, which hold their shape and transfer patterns onto the surface.
The sourdoughs have a soft crumb but become crusty when heated in an oven toaster. All you need is a smidgen of pure butter to enjoy the flavor of the campagne. The bakery takes the extra step of pre-slicing its pain de campagne so the bread can be enjoyed without the hassle, and can keeps it from getting deformed when improperly sliced. “Kaya ‘yung artisan ko sliced na. Sa tingin pa lang magugustuhan mo nang kumain, how much more after you toast it,” explains Ah on his idea of offering pre-sliced sourdough.
“Ganoon ako eh. It’s not only the bread, the taste, the recipe,” Ah elaborates. “It includes the packaging. Minsan bubukas mo ‘yung plastic, sobrang higpit nasisira ‘yung tinapay sa loob bago mo mailabas. That is also wrong. Kasama ‘yon. This is part of the service.”
Liberty’s artisan line also includes a whole wheat campagne, ciabatta, and a trio of corn, cheese, and sourdough in one pack.
While Liberty keeps to the trends, it has never strayed far from its old school panaderia roots. The hefty pan de suelo is a throwback to the old times when breads were baked in a wood-fired oven (pugon). This type of pan de sal gets its name from the Spanish word suelo (floor) because it was traditionally baked directly on the oven floor sans any baking sheet (plancha). (This “floor,” by the way, is in the interior of the oven and usually elevated, not the actual floor of the bakery.)
In lieu of a pugon, the bakery now uses a modern oven that mimics the conditions needed to make pan de suelo, including the high heat. The shaped dough is placed in a wooden tray before being transferred to the oven. Customers welcome the revival of the pan de suelo. “Iyon ang hinahanap,” says Ah.
Aside from the classic panaderia staples, including Liberty’s jumbo loaf, super soft, and Pinoy tasty, the bakery also sells flavored loaves like raisin bread, carrot bread, marble loaf, chocolate loaf, and ube-cheese loaf.
For Chinese-Filipino occasions, you will find mooncakes, tikoy, and radish cake. Some recent introductions are mini-Japanese cheesecakes in original and ube flavors, pork floss, and spring rolls (folded bread with pork floss filling), plus bakery staples like egg pie, meringue, ensaymada.
The presence of sourdoughs and classic Filipino breads in its modern roster is proof that heritage bakeries like Liberty Food Mart can survive the times while using technology to bring back the old.
Liberty Bakery, 1401 N. Zamora Street, Tondo, Manila, (02) 8254-6538
Photos by Paulo Valenzuela